Wednesday 5th March, 2008

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Nothingness of WI cricket

The really depressing thing about West Indies cricket these days is the state of nothingness into which it has fallen. It is neither here nor there; not coming, not going; not promising anything; not failing to achieve any expectations; the players not underachieving; the team (and it is questionable if there exists a fixed group of players we could refer to as “the team”) simply existing in a state of vacuum.

Once we could be critical of the leadership of Brian Lara. We could complain that the young players are not focused, that the learning curve of the young bowlers is far too long, and that the great tradition of West Indian outfielding and catching are but memories of the past.

There was even room for criticism of the coaching staff, the West Indies Cricket Board’s fixation with foreign no-name, no-reputation coaches. Indeed, in times recently past, criticism of the WICB could have been felt to be constructive and ultimately productive, the hope being that transformation could have been achieved because of the constructive criticism.

Now the sad reality, for those of us who would face it squarely, is that all of that seems no longer a legitimate route of criticism as a means of advance, hence that word I struggled with: “nothingness,” meaning a void is at the centre of West Indian cricket.

Time was when we were expecting one international tour in a season, far less the two to come, Sri Lanka and Australia; the environment would have been alive with expectation and possibility. Then the self-belief was so strong, we fully believed we would teach our visitors a thing or two about creative stroke-making by our batsmen, and unrelenting, unremitting fast bowling.

My mind lingered long on this great element of our cricketing tradition with the recent sad news of the death of Australian boy-wonder Norm O’Neil. For a couple seasons in the late 1950s and 1960s, the New South Wales right-hander was spoken about in the same breath as the immortal Don Bradman.

The year was 1965, we were on top of the world having crushed England and were ready to take revenge on the great Australians, after their umpires had saved them on the greatest of cricket tours Down Under.

“Them Australian jokers send down crash helmet to protect their batsmen from Hall and Charlie Griffith …” is how the Mighty Sparrow recalled the 1965 Australians.

He had a particular line about O’Neil, which does not come to mind readily, but it was to the effect that the Australian had a lot of mouth before the tour and after he was humiliated; but when he was facing those two titans of West Indian fast bowling, he was quiet like a mouse, only to scandalise Griffith’s name having carved out a clear line to the squareleg umpire when up against Big Charlie.

Incidentally, we have not as a people sufficiently cleared Griffith’s name and reputation from the mouths of those who maligned him. In modern times, Charlie would have been given every opportunity to bowl before machines and experts and given a rehabilitation period, that is assuming the arm was at an unacceptable level; then he was demonised like a Dracula.

Nevertheless, I remember well the build-up to the 1965 Australian tour of the Caribbean. My cricketing brothers and myself, but teenagers in the period, talked about nothing else but seeing the likes of Sobers, Kanhai, Hall, Griffith, Gibbs and others against Simpson, Lawry, McKenzie and the other great Australian players of the day.

Sir Frank Worrell had retired from the game and handed over to Sobers. We did not know then that the silkiest of the 3Ws would soon leave us, many of us completely bewildered that this greatest of West Indian cricketers, who had so much more to contribute to the development of the game and the personality of our cricket, could have left so soon.

Yes it mattered that we convincingly trounced the Australians: “Australia yuh loss, the West Indies is boss …better luck next time” was how Sparrow summed up the series.

We were not only confident and triumphant, but sufficiently secure in ourselves to be magnanimous about the future. We were assured that the West Indian ethos existed and there would be times when we would lose, but on the morrow we were sure to have a team, a spirit and a culture of greatness to be able to rebound from any minor misalignment of the cricketing forces.

It’s the point I make in this column: nothing now exists. Picture how bad the situation is: we beat a major team in a Test match abroad, South Africa, for the first time in lord knows how long and that has failed to spark a hope of redemption and transformation.

It is not that it was a fluke, it was done convincingly and with a measure of style, but we were inevitably rolled over with the greatest of ease. By the end of the series we looked a ragged third league bunch of players without hope.

For near on ten years this column has been suggesting a transformational approach. Frankly I doubt if any of it can now work, or indeed is relevant to the immediate.

Recently, the Stanford Twenty/20 circus hit town, players making large sums, the fast-foods cricket debilitating to the system, with money spread-abroad in the region like the sea water lashing the 365 beaches of Antigua. Still nothing!

And this game, designed to bring some measure of merriment to industrial societies of the 21st centuries, to ease stress and to modernise the image and substance of cricket, will impact most negatively on the West Indies and for a variety of reasons, the major one being that there exists nothing behind the facade.

The question surrounding the visits by Sri Lanka and Australia is not whether we will do well, but whether there can emerge something upon which we can hang a transformational ethic. Something that can emerge out of what Naipual has called An Area of Darkness to feed the soul of this civilisation.

And yes, it is far more than that we’re not playing good cricket at the moment. It is that our society in the Caribbean does not at the moment have a grounding pole, something that could give direction and hope for the future.

I wrote most of this on a flight between New York and Miami. Going through the airport at the southern city, I saw Lance Gibbs, golden and wonderful. I could not stop myself from staring at him. He looked back puzzled but with a smile of enthusiasm.

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